Every few years, a buzz fills the air in the southeastern United States as adolescent cicadas crawl out from the soil to molt and make babies. After a childhood spent sipping tree sap underground, some species emerge every 13 years, others every 17 years, rarely overlapping. Yet somehow in this giant cicada orgy, hybridization happens between species that should be out of sync.
Researchers have sought to explain how the two life cycle lengths developed. A new study published online April 19 in Communications Biology fails to pin the difference on genetics, but finds some interesting things along the way.
Cicadas fall into three species groups that diverged from one another about 3.9 million to 2.5 million years ago. Within each of those groups, species on a 13-year schedule diverged from 17-year-cycle cicadas about 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, the researchers from the United States and Japan report.
But the researchers also found that the 17-year and 13-year broods within each group share genetic code — evidence of hybridization. It’s possible that neighboring broods swapped DNA when their emergence overlapped — something that happens every 221 years — or if stragglers emerged early or late.